Open relationships necessitate nuanced view of cheating

Spencer Wharton

My boyfriend and I are LDR [long distance relationship]. We are in an open relationship, but chose to not tell each other anything until the semester is over. Is it okay for me to have cybersex with someone else?

-Seeking Online Seduction

If you’re uncertain, SOS, then wait until you’ve clarified with him. Do anything else, and you run the risk of cheating––even if you do it with the best intentions.

Your situation is a great example of how much there is to learn from open relationships, even for people in more traditional closed relationships. By thinking about open relationships as well as closed, for instance, we can come up with a more nuanced understanding of cheating.

We like to think of cheating in very black-and-white terms. Have sex with someone outside of your relationship, and you’re a cheater. Getting naked with someone outside of your relationship is cheating. Making out with someone who’s not your significant other is, too. Sexting, having cybersex, flirting––a person who does any of these outside of their relationship has cheated.

This black-and-white view, however, overlooks the multiple shades of gray to cheating and relationships. To be sure, everything listed above could count as cheating, and for many people, it does. But there are also relationships where everything listed above is okay. Saying sex outside a relationship is automatically cheating ignores open relationships where it may be perfectly fine, even encouraged.

Like so much else about sex and relationships, you can’t make assumptions about cheating. The definition of infidelity varies from person to person, and a single person may even have different feelings in different relationships. The only constant when it comes to cheating is the betrayal of your partner’s trust. It’s up to you and your partners to figure out, on a case-by-case basis, what that means.

Remembering this lets us take a more nuanced approach to cases like yours, SOS. You mention that you’re in an open relationship. It’s easy to misinterpret the meaning of that and assume––either as someone in the relationship or an observer from the outside––that an open relationship means sex with anyone is okay, and if we take the “cheating is just unfaithful sex” view, then cheating in an open relationship would seem impossible. But this, of course, is absurd, since cheating is violating your partner’s trust, and that can happen in open and closed relationships alike.

Luckily, you can easily avoid unwittingly cheating by making sure you and your partner(s) are on the same page. You mention that you and your boyfriend have agreed not to tell each other anything until the end of the semester. Many people in open relationships choose to go this route, and as long as you communicate everything necessary beforehand, it can work. In your case, however, it sounds like some topics were left untouched before agreeing to go incommunicado. As long as you don’t definitively know how your boyfriend feels about you cybering with someone else, hold off. Better safe than sorry.

I don’t know the terms of your relationship, SOS, so it’s possible this is unfeasible, but I would strongly suggest talking to your boyfriend soon if you can, even if you previously agreed to remain silent on the issue. Don’t give him more information than he wants, but figure out whether he’s cool with you cybering with someone else. Not only will it be a relief to clear up your uncertainty, but if he approves, then you can have the cybersex you want to have without worrying about betraying his trust.